The atmosphere at Deering Meadow was festive at kickoff on Saturday afternoon, but the hundreds of students who came out to watch the Northwestern-Duke football broadcast on two large screens began to experience an old, familiar sinking feeling just five minutes into the game.
Northwestern's early streaks of not throwing an interception and not allowing a touchdown both ended in rapid succession, and the 'Cats found themselves in a quick 7-0 hole, trailing for just the second time this season. Perhaps the magic had run out. This was Northwestern football, after all.
That sinking feeling persisted as the NU offense sputtered for much of the first half. A red zone interception by the 'Cats kept Duke from most likely adding to its lead, but the consensus on the meadow was that Dean Lowry's J.J. Watt-esque play was only delaying the inevitable, as NU failed to capitalize on the turnover and score.
"This is just like that ugly Michigan game last year," one student said in disgust as the 'Cats failed to convert on yet another third-and-long. While nothing will ever compare to that heaping hot garbage pile that almost resembled a football game last November, NU's offensive first half brought back some painful memories for the fans, as the 'Cats were only able to muster a late first half field goal from Jack Mitchell to make it 7-3 Duke at intermission.
But little by little, the 23rd-ranked Wildcats pulled it together, and the groans in front of Deering Library turned into cheers. Solomon Vault returned the opening kickoff of the second half back for a touchdown and Warren Long ran right through the defense for six early in the fourth quarter. The defense hunkered down, per usual, and that was all she wrote.
It doesn't do anybody much good to dwell on hypotheticals, but it's safe to say that had last year's Northwestern team been playing Duke's 2015 squad yesterday, the 2014 'Cats wouldn't have been able to gut out a win like their '15 counterparts did. On multiple occasions, the '14 team lived and died by the play of Trevor Siemian. When he wasn't firing on all cylinders (oftentimes partially the fault of his offensive line/receiver corps), NU usually faltered, despite its solid defense. This year is different.
Siemian's successor, Clayton Thorson, had the worst game of his young career yesterday, completing just nine passes on 23 attempts with two picks. In the end it didn't matter, because Anthony Walker stepped up with a whopping 19 tackles (1.5 for loss) and Hunter Niswander stepped up with a season-long average of 41 yards/punt, including a season-long 49-yarder. Oh, and Justin Jackson quietly racked up 120 rushing yards.
Besides the obvious difference in records to this point in the season, this year's Northwestern football team is wholly different from last year's in that it does not rely on standout individual efforts to carry the 'Cats week to week. While Walker and Jackson have anchored the most consistent units on the team thus far, NU has shown that it can beat teams with a variety of other weapons, too.
On Saturday it was the once-beleaguered special teams, creating running lanes for Vault to take it 98 yards to the house and coming up with a fumble recovery on a muffed punt, and the once-beleaguered offensive line, giving Jackson holes to run through and mowing down a picket fence of Blue Devils to let Long to burst free for his arrow-straight 55-yard scoring run. So all in all, two explosive scoring plays and two big turnovers were created (aside from the muffed punt). Sometimes that's all it takes to win on the road. Even though it wasn't always pretty, these 'Cats will take it where they can get it. That's the identity of this team.
It sounds like coachspeak (because it is), but NU's performance on Saturday was the definition of a "team win," with the final 19-10 tally clearly representing an aggregation of positive contributions from all three phases of the game, from star players to role players. The 'Cats didn't have many of those types of performances last year, but now you could argue that they have three, and counting.